17 January 1999

Church and State: a split

By Rachel Sylvester

The accepted wisdom is that Henry VIII created the Protestant Church of England in 1533 because the Roman Catholic Pope would not let him annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. In fact, historians believe the Reformation was far more about the King's determination to seize political power back from Rome. More recently there has been much sound and fury about whether Prince Charles could become King - and Supreme Governor of the Anglican church - if he married Camilla Parker Bowles, a divorcee. But the real question is what the political relationship between church and state should be.

The issue is fundamental to the work of the royal commission into reform of the House of Lords, which will be formally set up this week. Baroness Jay, the Leader of the Lords, has made clear that she would like to see Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and Roman Catholic leaders sitting alongside Anglican bishops in the new upper chamber. This would undermine the uniquely powerful position that the Church of England has in Parliament simply as the national religion. It would also raise far-reaching questions about how the "holy trinity" of church, state and monarchy should interact.

Anglican bishops at a conference in York last week could talk of little else. Over after-dinner port, the men in purple privately agreed that they would almost certainly have to accede to Lord Irvine's demands for them to give up some of their 26 seats, in the name of modernisation. Committees have been set up by the church to compile evidence to submit to the commission about why the bishops should maintain a role - but most senior figures are preparing to compromise.

But the debate did not stop there. The senior clergy began to discuss the prospect of disestablishment. Few bishops support such a dramatic move, but they realise that change is inevitable and that the church should try to set the agenda rather than being bounced into reform. The Most Rev David Hope, the Archbishop of York and the second most senior churchman, has privately been involved in a consultation group, based in Sheffield, which has been examining the future of the relationship between church and state. "It is important that these questions should be debated," he says. "We should not be covert about it." Last November, Philip Mawer, the Church of England's secretary-general, hosted a meeting with representatives from other Christian denominations to discuss options for the future. The General Synod has also set up a special committee to consider whether the Prime Minister should still be involved in appointing bishops. Everything from the future of the coronation to MPs' power over the church is up for grabs.

The Rt Rev Richard Harries, the Bishop of Oxford, is adamant that the status quo is not an option. "What's quite clear is that the nature of establishment has changed, is changing and will change," he says. "Having an established . . .

'There could be quite a change in the next 30 years' : The great divide: what religious leaders and experts think

Richard Harries, Bishop of Oxford

I feel strongly that at the next coronation the leaders of other faiths need to be significantly and symbolically present, and I am sure they will be. They need to be much more than guests; they need to be present in the sanctuary, at the centre of things. We are an evolving society. I do not think it is essential to the service that there should be a celebration of holy communion - on these occasions it is sometimes best not to have it in order that other people might not feel ill at ease. What's clear is that the nature of establishment has changed, is changing and will change. Having an established church is a symbolic statement that there is something more important in life than politics, that there's a standard to which all governments are ultimately accountable. But the church is not going to be desperately fighting our own corner because we offer the establishment link as a service to the nation if the nation wants it.

Kenneth Stevenson, Bishop of Portsmouth and one of the church's foremost liturgical historians

The coronation service was not invented by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden; it's not set in stone. At the moment it has been for centuries set in the context of a communion service . that may be regarded as unrealistic and go. A future coronation oath could also be changed. If it is thought that religious pluralism must be a dimension within a Christian monarch's remit that would be where a lot of us are. We are recognising the sincerity of other faiths without denigrating the sincerity of our own.

Robert Hardy, Bishop of Lincoln

There is a slow breaking up of the link between church and state and there could be quite a change over the next 30 years. Society is more secular in all sorts of ways. The coronation needs to bend without being broken. Charles wants to be representative of all his people and it is probably likely that the next ceremony will be less explicitly Protestant. There needs to be a spiritual element in the Lords but I'm not saying they all ought to be Anglican, most of us would reckon there would be a modest adjustment to the number of seats to make room for other faiths.

Colin Buchanan, Bishop of Woolwich

I believe in the disestablishment of the Church of England - that would release any future monarch from the obligation to be its Supreme Governor and remove the legal requirement that he or she should believe. Only a small proportion of the population adheres to it, so it is odd for the Church of England to be the state religion. This needs to be sorted out before the next coronation, but even if the church is not disestablished the ceremony should be reformed. The incoming monarch should have some say in the religious handling of the coronation. The heart of the ceremony is secular, although it has been very well dressed in Christian dress.

Vernon Bogdanor, Historian

The coronation is an Anglican service because the Church of England is the established church. Britain is a multicultural, multi-denominational nation and you may argue that if you keep the establishment, there should be representatives of other cultures and denominations included in the ceremony. While still defending establishment, Prince Charles has made a point of describing himself as a "defender of faith" and he definitely wants the coronation to be an inter-faith celebration. Just like the D-Day commemoration, it would be an Anglican service but with other faiths included, too. It would require a change to the law in order to change the nature of the coronation. But the Government should not do anything until there is a wide consensus among the bishops about what they really want.

Lord St John of Fawsley, Constitutional expert

We are a Christian country and, although you hear a lot of talk about it being a multi-faith society, our religious experience has come to us through the Christian tradition. The establishment of the Church of England recognises that fact and helps sustain Christian attitudes both in public and private life. It would be a great error to disestablish it. I would have no objection to other religious leaders taking part in the coronation but the monarch must not be saying that all religions are equally important or true.